by Michael Aigner

Michael Aigner is a graduate student at Stanford University, who serves on the USCF College Chess Committee and the USCL Subcommittee of the USCF Computer and Internet Committee.  His experience in internet chess dates back to the American Internet Chess Server (AICS) in the summer of 1994, and he has served as admin of FICS for over two years, USCL for a few months, and currently for ICC.   His public account name on all these servers is "fpawn."  He is a USCF Alternate Delegate for Northern California, and has recently had a Master rating.

In the following post from the newsgroup, Aigner responds to a post by USCF President Tim Redman regarding US ChessLive.

 Subject: USCF EB and USCL
 Date: Wed, 30 May 2001 12:37:58 -0700
 From: Michael Aigner <>

 Dr. Redman's fairly concise summary of where the USCF Executive Board
 stands on US Chess Live allows me to say a few things in response.

 > There would be a budget impact statement, it would be prepared exactly
 > along the same lines as all the others, and I suspect that it would be
 > somewhere in the neighborhood of positive $100,000 (to eliminate on-line
 > play).

 So the budget impact of eliminating the online service in the coming year
 would be a savings on the order of $100,000.  Consequently, this
 membership benefit is costing the USCF that much each year.  This ignores
 the fact that the USCF was receiving a small profit out of the ICC deal
 that expired last year.

 > However. . . .
 > Having our own on-line play is part of the strategic plan adopted by
 > the current Board, but it is not a new idea.  It has been called for by
 > previous Boards.  The Barry Board made it the #1 priority of the USCF
 > about six years ago, but it was never implemented.

 Fair enough.  The Executive Board sees online play as an important
 investment.  Whether the timing of this, with the USCF in deep financial
 trouble, is right remains to be seen.  Maybe "better late than never" is
 true here, but maybe not.

 > The emergency USCF financial workshop held in Parsippany in, I believe,
 > February of 1999 called for on-line play as an important component of a
 > financial recovery plan.

 OK, so the Executive Board had a vision.  We can only judge whether this
 vision is misguided or not.

 > The current Board believes that on-line play should be a free benefit
 > to USCF members.  So far, 13,000 USCF members have registered.  The
 > first step was to get the thing up and running without committing
 > up-front financial resources (which we didn't have).

 <note: Shawn Sullivan of GamesParlor says this number is closer to 15,000>

 15,000 USCF members may have signed up.  This number is strikingly low
 compared to the 90,000 or so members that the USCF has.  Surely in this
 day and age, more than 15% has access to a computer and the internet.
 Clearly the advertising campaign has failed.  Moreover, ICC estimates that
 a similar number of USCF members are currently paying on their site (this
 means they pay $40 for USCF and $49 for ICC if they are adults).

 My real question, though, is where are these 15,000 members?  The peak
 online numbers (number of users online at the same time) typically is in
 the mid 200s.  About 2300 accounts are active in blitz, which is the most
 common form of play.  Since not all active members are active in blitz, I
 think it is safe to say that there are between 3000-4000 active members on
 USCL.  That's less than 5% of all USCF members.  Considering how much time
 kids and college age adults spend on internet game servers (chess and
 other games), I find this alarmingly low.

 Another interesting tidbit.  I have observed a trend among a few kids that
 I know.  This will certainly make Daniel Sleator happy.  These kids were
 not allowed to play on ICC in the past because of the payment issues.  But
 now they were able to play for free on USCL and could demonstrate to their
 parents that online servers are not just some gimmick.  And guess what,
 these kids (four so far) now are paying ICC members!  So it seems that all
 the advertising in Chess Life for USCL is indirectly benefitting ICC!

 > The next step is to generate revenue from it.  We anticipate that
 > revenue would come from several sources:  1) on-line prize tournaments,
 > 2) increase in retention/renewal rates, 3) an appeal to lapsed members
 > touting the enhanced value of USCF membership (more member benefits at
 > the same cost).  Our initial attempt in that direction was not
 > successful.  4)  the introduction of a premium playing site without
 > advertising for an additional fee.  5)  the increased retention of
 > scholastic members through their college and into their adult years.
 > Young folks seem to have a special interest in on-line play.

 Let me address each point separately:

 1) The minute you start charging for tournaments, the attendance drops
 dramatically.  Even on ICC, where capitalism reigns, tournaments with a
 nominal entry fee of $5 or $10 tend to flop badly.  Most recent example:
 Dos Hermanas.

 2) Increasing retention/renewal rates is key.  The question is: how?

 3) Appealing to lapsed members is another key.  For US Chess Live to be
 part of that appeal, the server needs to offer something of value that
 exceeds what ICC offers.  Currently, I see only lectures and prize
 tournaments.  These are only at specific times of the day/week.  If
 someone can't attend at these hours, or has little interest in lectures or
 blitz tournaments, or is worried about computer cheaters, then this has no
 added value.  On ICC, a person gets the services of a well-run server that
 has been around six years to work out the kinks.  Casual tournaments are
 run all throughout the day.  Major world chess events are broadcast live,
 often with GM commentary.  And the cost?  For adults, ICC costs only $9
 more for a year than USCF/USCL.  (Note: this paragraph assumes that all
 members who lapsed did so because they prefer online play, which is
 hardly true, although it certainly is a contributing factor.)

 4) Again, the more cost, the less members.  A premium site has to offer
 something that ICC can't for it to even dream of being successful, or else
 even the "ICC costs more" argument fails.  I have serious doubts this site
 will fly unless USCF and GamesParlor intends to directly compete with ICC.

 5) I am very impressed to see someone of Dr. Redman's stature finally at
 least mention the college chess factor!  I have said all along that the
 key to success of USCL is attracting players in the 13-25 age group.
 Those are the members most likely to have access to computers and who
 generally spend a large percentage of their time online (playing quake or
 chess or whatever).  USCF has traditionally been extremely low key about
 targetting these members, which is why they slip away.  Why can't the USCF
 retain its large base of scholastic members as they grow older?  This is
 the million dollar question, on which perhaps USCF and USCL's very
 survival depends.

 I find it interesting that Dr. Redman doesn't mention advertising revenue
 as a major factor here.  Perhaps the powers that be have realized that
 this is not a real source of revenue until the number of people online
 approaches 1000 or more, which it clearly hasn't yet.

 > The general skittishness of some regarding this new feature of USCF
 > membership is in part due to this being an election year, but also in
 > part to a seeming inability among some chessplayers to realize that
 > although the amount of time between having an idea in chess and putting
 > it into practice is measured in seconds, in a real-world situation it is
 > measured in months and years.

 Yes.  ICC was not built overnight, but has been tweaked over the past six
 years to where it is now.  If USCF and USCL can survive six years (or even
 until the end of the current two year deal until May 2003), then there's
 hope.  If...

 > The new feature of USCF membership has only been up and running since last
 > August.  Let's give it a chance and look at the numbers.

 I have long stated that I want to see the USCF succeed.  If USCF can
 create an online site alongside ICC, then so be it.  The competition, if
 healthy and mutual, will help both sites and the chess playing public in

 However, I fear that the USCF-GamesParlor alliance will fail at some
 future date.  USCF is investing on the order of $100,000/year into this
 project.  GamesParlor is investing even more into their planned network of
 worldwide servers, of which USCL is the first (and only one in operation
 so far).  Certainly, GamesParlor has access to a pot of gold somewhere
 which allows it to fund its venture.  When this pot of gold runs out, what
 happens?  If USCL is profitable, then it continues.  If USCL continues as
 it does today, it dies and leaves the USCF hanging.

 Dear Captain of the USCF Titanic, do you know where the lifeboats are?

 Michael Aigner
 Alternate Delegate, CA-N

Editor's comment:  Several USCF Boards as well as a financial workshop have declared it to be vital that USCF provide free online play to its members.  Now that the federation has finally achieved this long sought after goal, it finds that the benefits are probably not worth the costs. USCF leaders should have the flexibility to say "OK, maybe we were wrong," and abandon this dubious enterprise before the losses mount still higher.

Is it surprising that having free online play as a member benefit has had little or no effect on USCF's membership totals?  Not really, when you consider that:

1) ICC is far more popular than USCL, and many USCF members who are serious about online chess would rather pay $4/month to play on ICC than play free on USCL.

2) Online players who don't care about the other benefits of USCF membership are far more likely to pay $49/year for ICC, the leader in its field, than $32 for a USCF internet membership to play on US ChessLive.  The difference is less than $1.50 per month.

3) Players without sufficient interest or money to pay for ICC can play free on FICS or various new servers.  Additional online play startups are likely to continue to enter the marketplace, offering free play in an attempt to gain market share.  Even if a USCF member prefers USCL to the free alternatives, the fact that other free services exist means that the USCL free privilege is not likely to be of great value to the member. homepage